The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Christian Living (page 2 of 19)

Honest Thoughts from a Hospital Room

I am writing from my daughter’s room at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, following her successful VNS surgery this morning. It is well after midnight; Caroline is asleep, and Kinsley is trying to be. It is an excellent time for reflection.

I am not writing the following to elicit sympathy from those who read it, nor am I seeking “cheering up”. I don’t want to come across as whiny or depressing; rather, I write in the hope that my (honest) ramblings may provide some encouragement to others.


Over the last few years, our ongoing struggles with Kinsley—learning about her brain abnormalities, receiving a diagnosis, traveling extensively to see specialists, attempting to manage her seizures, dealing with her daily special needs—have led to countless people telling us something to the effect of, “You guys are such amazing parents,” or “Your faith is such a great example to us.”

Those are kind words with kind intentions behind them, but sometimes they can be frustrating as well. You see, we didn’t ask to have the opportunity to be such wonderful parents, or to have the platform to wrestle with our faith in such a way that we can be good examples for others. And furthermore, to be frank, sometimes we really don’t feel like wonderful parents or great examples at all. We feel that we do no more than anyone else would in our shoes, we feel helpless—completely unable to do anything to help our little girl, and we feel so very, very tired—tired of seizures, tired of doctor appointments, and tired of our sweet princess having to deal with more than she should ever have to.

And yet…if God can somehow use our helpless and tired efforts to bring encouragement to someone else or to shine a ray of light into a dark world…praise the Lord. Truly, what wondrous things He accomplishes through human weakness.

What a blessing!


Although I do not find myself particularly inclined to do so, it sometimes can be tempting for those in full-time ministry to look down upon those who engage in “secular” work (you may even hear that terminology from time to time).

Over the last few years, as we have been on the receiving end of such amazing care from so many therapists (basically our favorite people ever), nurses, doctors, teachers, aides, etc., it has deeply reinforced in my own mind how sacred it is to use your vocation as a means of blessing others. God’s work is done in all sorts of places, and I am deeply grateful for those who have so clearly shown me that as we have traveled this journey.

What a blessing!


Throughout this process, there are times when I feel that I am at my wit’s end. Completely overwhelmed. Barely able to keep my head above water. Emotionally stressed. Spiritually fatigued. Physically exhausted.

Increasingly, I have come to suspect that we are sustained by prayer. Certainly our own prayers, but, in light of the spiritual fatigue I mentioned above, my prayers are not exactly great right now—they consist of a lot of sighs and pleadings and persistence and “groanings too deep for words”.

No, I believe that we are especially sustained by the prayers of others. From the beginning, it has been overwhelming to me the way that others have responded to our situation. It is beyond humbling to know that people from all over the world, including many we don’t even personally know, are praying for us. More than that, more people than I can count have told me that they pray for Kinsley and our family every day. How can I even respond to that? What a gift that is!

I am so deeply, deeply grateful. And beyond the prayers—every single kindness means so much: the kind words and messages we receive, the concerned questions people ask, the social media well-wishings, the silent hugs, the money for travel expenses slipped into a handshake—all of it. People extend us so much love so frequently, that it is all I can do to refrain from constantly bursting into tears (because that would be awkward, right?).

But those are healing tears—tears belonging to a Kingdom that seeks to restore the goodness of a broken world.

What a blessing!

Radical Conversion(?)

I recently finished reading Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith, and found it to be an endearing combination of brilliant insights and prolonged axe-grinding. However, one quotation in particular really struck me:

The pernicious effects of a spiritual body composed mostly of second-generation Christians whose early-youth baptisms were, in the main, more convention than conversion are more spiritually devastating than we might ever imagine. Why are we not more evangelistic? Because we ourselves were never radically converted. Why do spiritual matters not hold center place in our busy, work-a-day lives? Because a merely “mentalized” faith can too easily become a compartmentalized faith. Why are we just as materialistic, worldly, and secular as our irreligious (or religious!) next-door neighbors? Because we have been duly initiated into a worldly church, but never properly introduced to an other-worldly Kingdom.

(p.42)

I have had discussions before about how adult converts perceive a lot of things differently than those who have “grown up in the church,” but never before had I really considered the effect of having churches comprised largely of second (or third, or fourth) generation Christians who became Christians largely as a matter of convention: it was just what they were raised to do.

Before I go any further, I should point out what a tremendous blessing it is to be raised in the church, and to have Christian parents who are devoted to the idea of passing faith on to their kids. So please do not hear me as saying that it is a bad thing to be raised in the church. It is not. But at the same time, I think there is a lot of validity to what Smith suggests above. In biblical examples of conversion (think, for example, of Saul of Tarsus), we see a radical change in people when they come to know Jesus. Their lives are very different than they were previously.

When I look at my own life, I see a very different story. I can never remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. I was a good kid who tried to do good things. To be sure, I had sin in my life, but becoming a Christian didn’t entail a massive lifestyle change. In fact, the main difference in my life that I can remember is that following my baptism and commitment to Christ, I began taking Communion on Sundays! The point that I’m trying to make here is not that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is not important (it is), but rather, to underscore that my life was not significantly different than it had been previously: my life course was not radically altered by my decision to become a Christian.

Last fall, I attended a youth conference where the speaker did an excellent job of making the point that before you are prepared to share the Story of Jesus, you need to understand and be able to articulate how the Story has impacted your own life. A helpful way to verbalize this is simply by completing the statement, “Before Jesus, I was ____________; now I am ____________.” The problem is, based on my conversations with a lot of students raised in the church, they are unable to determine any difference! They can’t tell how their lives changed after they became Christians. This is a big problem.

This problem is further underscored by my conversations with young people prior to their baptism. Especially with younger kids, I always want to ask something like, “How will your life change once you are a Christian?” Generally, they have no idea!

Truly, I think Smith has hit upon a major issue, and I think the implications of this issue are, perhaps, as significant as he makes them out to be. The reality of “Christians” who look entirely too much like the world is pervasive in American Christianity, and maybe this is the root of the problem: people are not truly being converted.

That necessarily leads to the question, what should we do about it? Honestly, I am not sure, but here are three tentative suggestions:

Talk to kids about the cost of discipleship before they make a commitment to Christ. Becoming a Christian is not about joining a social club, or slightly cleaning up your spiritual self. It constitutes a radical change of dying to self and following Jesus instead. Increasingly, I try to have these sorts of conversations with children and teens who express a desire to be baptized in an order to get them to see (even in a limited way) the magnitude of the commitment they are making.

As the Church, do a better job of embodying the radical expectations of Jesus. How are young people going to figure out how to live as salt and light in the world if older Christians are not modeling this sort of lifestyle for them? If we have long-time Christians…and elders…and ministers who are markedly worldly in their thinking and practice, how will our children move beyond that. Read the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus demands radical living. Isn’t it about time that we hold ourselves up to the standards that Jesus sets for following Him?

Make the conversion experience more of an event. If becoming a Christian is the most important decision that one makes (and I absolutely believe it is), shouldn’t we make a really big deal about it? People go through great time and expense planning weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc., because we recognize that these are significant milestones that deserve to be celebrated. I realize that because of the nature of conversion (people make a commitment in the moment), the same sort of upfront planning might not be possible, but couldn’t churches plan celebrations after the fact? Couldn’t we eat together and sing and talk and laugh and celebrate the new birth that has happened, and talk about the reality that everything has now changed? Couldn’t we, at least within our church fellowships, pay more attention to celebrating baptismal birthdays than physical birthdays?

Perhaps these are helpful suggestions; perhaps not. For my part, I am convinced that Smith has struck upon a legitimate problem, so certainly something needs to be done.

Choosing to be Healthy

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly convicted that I need to channel more effort toward being healthier in my life. I began working out regularly a couple of years ago, and now, in addition to that, I also, count calories using my FitBit app. Since the beginning of the year, I have lost about ten pounds (while gaining significant strength), and I am hoping to continue to lose some of my remaining unhelpful weight.

A lot of people give me a hard time when they find out that I am doing this (“Why are you counting calories?”, “You don’t need to lose weight!”), which is completely fine, but after some reflection, I thought it might be helpful—both for my own processing and for others as well—to share reasons for why I am working so hard (and truly, it has been hard work for me) to be healthier.

I Care About Creation

The first reason is basically theological. Through various books and studies, I have increasingly come to place value on creation. Scripture teaches that God created all that is and called it good, and the overarching Story of Scripture is the tale of what God is doing to rescue and redeem what He has created (including, significantly, humanity).

The conviction that creation care matters has impacted me in multiple ways—increased care about recycling, taking the same water bottle to work everyday instead of drinking bottled water or using styrofoam cups, driving a hybrid car, etc. More recently, though, I have also realized that valuing creation also means valuing the physical body that God has given me: (1) it is valuable because God says it is, and (2) because it is a dwelling place for God’s Spirit.[1]

Religious people have long made arguments that practices like smoking, excessive drinking, and drug use should be avoided because they damage the body—the same principle easily applies in reverse for diet and exercise.

I Care About My Marriage

Caroline is a wonderful person. She is spiritually devout, supportive, intelligent, funny, caring, and beautiful. She is a wonderful mother to our kids, and she loves me unconditionally. I am blessed to have her in my life.

Because I love my wife, and because I care deeply about our relationship, I want to be in good physical shape. This enables me to have more physical energy to contribute around the house, and, frankly, it helps me to be more physically attractive to my wife.

I Care About My Kids

I have a 5-year old daughter (Kinsley) and an 8-month old son (Seth). I do not know what tomorrow brings, and I am not under the illusion that I can somehow control the future, but I know that my odds of sticking around long enough to see my children grow up are influenced by the way that I choose to live now.

In other words, if I want to be there for my kids tomorrow, then I need to try to be healthy today. Furthermore, Kinsley has a wide array of special needs, and she needs her Daddy to be physically strong enough to give her the care and support she requires.

I Care About How I Feel

A lot of times when we talk about ourselves, we might refer to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components as if these were compartmentalized aspects of who we are as people that don’t really influence one another.

One thing that I have come to really appreciate only recently is how interconnected we are as people: God did not create us as disjointed entities, but as embodied persons. Our physical health (or lack thereof) can influence our emotional state; our mental health (or lack thereof) can have spiritual repercussions.

Put simply, I feel better about things when I am in good shape. I have more confidence, I am happier, and I think I am kinder to others as well.

I Care About My Hobbies

I started playing ultimate frisbee over 15 years ago, and I never could have predicted how much it would influence my life (or for how long). I still continue to play it regularly, and more than that, I actively train in order to play it better.

A lot of people cannot understand why a 33-year old husband, father, and minister would continue to devote so much time and energy to a hobby, but for me, it is a necessity: I carry a lot of stress in my life, and having an enjoyable physical outlet where I can expend energy and frustrations is an absolutely essential form of self-care. I enjoy playing more when I am actually good, and at my age, my ability to play well is directly linked to the shape I am in.

Conclusion

In my journey to being healthier, there is still room for improvement. I am not a particularly healthy eater (just because I consume fewer calories than I burn doesn’t mean the calories I take in are good calories!), and I know that I don’t get as much sleep as I should (I blame my 8-month old), but I have seen positive results from my efforts thus far, and that, combined with the reasons above, help motivate me to continue this course.


[1] In 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, Paul uses the fact that are bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit as an argument for why Christians should abstain from sexual immorality. I do not think that it does violence to the text to extend this principle to general care for our bodies since they are locations for the Spirit’s presence.

“Do Thy Work”

In my last post, I lamented the fact that so many Christians seem to be so unconcerned about seeking unity with other believers, despite this being something that Jesus Himself specifically prayed for.

This is something that frustrates me greatly, but to be honest, there are a lot of issues that frustrate me greatly which I face regularly as a minister:

  • Why does a particular parent seem less concerned about their child’s faith than am?
  • If Christians really believe what they claim to believe, why aren’t they more committed to Christ and His church?
  • How can people who have supposedly been following Jesus for decades be so immature and unChristian in the ways they deal with other people?
  • How can Christians get more stirred up about their political views than their faith? Related: why do so many American Christians seem to feel more loyalty toward America than Christ?
  • Why do we pick and choose which sinful behaviors we will address and condemn?

The list could go on and on; really, I just picked random problems as they occurred to me. When I focus on all of these problems and the way that they frustrate me, it can be exasperating: at times, I am tempted to throw up my hands and throw in the towel.

But then, I remember one of my favorite quotations from George MacDonald, the Scottish author, minister, and theologian:

“Heed not thy feeling; do thy work.”

In other words, the frustration I feel in response to these problems actually has no bearing on my own responsibility to do what I know that I have been called to do. I am to tend the garden in which God has planted me, take up my cross daily and follow Jesus, and seek to live out the behavior in my own life that I hope to see in the lives of others.

Jesus expresses a similar idea in John 21.18-22. He is speaking to Peter, and says:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

Jesus tells Peter that it really wasn’t his place to worry about what happened to the other disciple (probably John); Peter’s job was to follow Jesus.

Whether in ministry, or in life in general, there are many things that may bother me greatly. I may pray about those things, study and plan ways to address the problems, strive to teach others to live in better and more godly ways, etc. But ultimately, it is not my job to fix the world’s problems or feel depressed when I’m unable to do so; my job is to follow Jesus.

As He said to Peter, Jesus says to me: “What is that to you? You must follow Me.”

Answering Jesus’ Prayer: Unity Among Christians

When you write a blog that is primarily about ministry, biblical studies, and theology, you know from the beginning that you are really writing for a niche audience, as a lot of people are simply not interested in these topics. Today’s post perhaps may seem to be of even narrower focus, because I am going to address my own religious fellowship, but I would like to think that there are some worthy principles here whether you are a part of Churches of Christ or not.

In John 13-17, we have what is typically called the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus. Knowing that He will soon be betrayed, arrested, and crucified, Jesus lays out some central teachings that He wants His disciples to hold onto after He is gone.

In one section in John 17, Jesus emphasizes the importance of unity among His followers, and prays to that effect:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

(John 17.20-23)

It is worth pointing out that in this section, Jesus suggests that unity among His followers is a key ingredient in the world believing that Jesus is who He says He is. The reality is that there is considerable disunity in the world today among those who claim to be followers of Jesus, and that, in fact, this is one reason that many nonbelievers do not believe.

As I have written about many times in this space, I work and worship within the context of Churches of Christ, which have historical roots in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement of the early 1800s. I will not digress too far into history right now, but I will note that the Restoration Movement came about as a means to achieve unity amongst believers in Jesus, and that it sought to do so by emphasizing the beliefs and practices of the early church as revealed in the pages of the New Testament. I think this is a laudable effort, and it resonates strongly with me.

What saddens me deeply, though, is how little I see the desire for unity in my religious fellowship today. I dislike using labels, but for the sake of ease, from the most conservative branch of our fellowship, I see little desire for unity at all. I see a great amount of concern for doctrinal accuracy (which is important and praiseworthy), but virtually no concern at all for working for unity with those who disagree. The basic attitude seems to be, “We can have unity if you change everything you believe and agree with me.” This is a problem.

On the other hand, from the most progressive branch of our fellowship, I see a great desire for unity with believers of other religious fellowships* (sometimes with very little regard for the beliefs and practices of those groups), but at the same time, from those same people, I see little desire for unity with their own brothers and sisters who are more conservative. Instead, what I frequently witness (in online discussion groups and blogs, primarily) is a thinly veiled disdain and condescension toward people whom they consider to be too stupid or too ignorant to really understand what Christianity is all about. The basic attitude seems to be, “We can have unity if you become more enlightened like me and shed your backward and childish beliefs.” This, too, is a problem.

As I have written before, I find myself somewhere in the middle: frustrated and uncomfortable with both extremes, and increasingly, feeling isolated from both. At times, it feels like a very lonely place to be.

But here is the deal: if Jesus prayed for unity among His followers, it must be pretty important, right? At many times and in many ways, we want God to answer our prayers; it seems remarkable to me that, here, we have the opportunity to answer His. Could it be any more clear that this is something we should give greater attention to?

I am not claiming that this is an easy process, but it at least has to start with my own desire to carry out Jesus’ prayer, and in my own life, to seek unity with other believers with whom I disagree, whether they are theologically to my right or to my left.


*I keep using the word “fellowship” to tacitly acknowledge the debate that continues to rage within Churches of Christ about whether or not “we” are a denomination, or simply the church that belongs to Christ. I do not intend to wade into that debate here; I will just acknowledge that “we” do a lot of things that look and sound very denominational, but that at the same time, most of “us” do not desire to be a man-made denomination, and are simply wanting to be the church we read about in the Bible.

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